What is time?
An introductory note of warning: some readers may find this blog a bit too theoretical and a waste of ‘time’.
We feel we know with some certainty what most things in our lives are. Things made of matter, of atoms and molecules, we can deal with comfortably, for they are solid and easy to experience with our senses. Even things like light and heat present no great confusion for us, once we understand the nature of electromagnetic radiation. We can even live with the duality in the nature of light, its being both a particle and a wave at the same time (a nice metaphor for the Divinity and Humanity of Christ perhaps?)
But when it comes to time, it is different. We do not really experience time with our senses in the normal sense. We experience the effects of time: things like movement and change. But what about time itself? What exactly is it?
Well if you’re now hoping I will go on to explain what time is, you will be disappointed. As far as I can ascertain, no one has ever been able to come even remotely close to explaining what time is. Oh sure, we fit time nicely into a whole lot of the laws and equations of physics, and we speak of time being the fourth dimension, together with the three dimensions of space forming the beautifully phrased “Time-Space Continuum”. We manipulate the idea of time to solve all sorts of practical problems and we use the time we read off our watches to organise our lives. But none of this even begins to tell us just what time actually is.
Normally, we understand things best by comparison with something already familiar to us. “A chihuahua is like a poodle,” I might explain to someone who has never seen one, “only a lot smaller, and usually with a lot more attitude.” But what can we compare time to? It seems to exist (does it exist?) in a category all its own.
The only thing we can compare it to sensibly is a dimension of space. Thus, we usually represent time using the classic representation of a spatial dimension: the number line. We think of time as being like a line that extends in one dimension, with forwards being the future, backwards being the past, and some point upon the line being the present, where we are now. Then we extend this analogy to have our point of the present slowly (???) moving along that line of time at a constant speed, never being able to stop, or go backwards, or speed up. This is a useful enough analogy for most of our practical needs, and it opens doors for the imagination of science fiction writers to explore by playing with our movement along this line. But is that really what time is?
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps most famous for being extremely hard to understand, proposed the solution that we are wrong to try to define time in words. Perhaps, he says, or at least as well as I can understand him, the problem is our language. Perhaps there are some things in our world that simply cannot be properly defined using the human lnaguage which is all we know. Perhaps if we could think in some other way, some totally alien way that we cannot now imagine, the nature of time would be obvious, as obvious as the nature of matter. Of course, St Paul preceded him by some 1900 years when he told us about the things in Heaven that “no words can express”. So maybe time is one of those creations of God. Maybe it belongs to the category of creations incomprehensible to the limited mind of man.
And where does God fit in all this? What is the relationship of God to time? I had thought this must have been obvious to most Christians, until I did a bit of research and dicsovered what a marvellous variety of theories Christians have held on this topic! Here are a couple (that I don’t like, by the way):
1. God exists within time Himself, just as we do.
2. God exists outside of our time, but within His own time, a sort of “meta-time”.
I don’t like these explanations, because being your typical Eastern Christian, any explanation that limits God in any way is unacceptable to me. The best explanation I have found so far is that God created time and exists outside of time in some mode that we can never imagine, being prisoners of time ourselves. All time is ‘present’ before Him, or is known to Him. But you see, even in trying to relay that last concept, I had to use a word that implies He is in time, “present”, whereas, He isn’t.
Perhaps that’s enough boggling of the mind for now (another ‘time’ word).